Last night, I attended a very interesting public meeting on routes proposed for the Barrydowne Extension. If you're not from Sudbury, you're probably not familiar with this issue, which, along with its partner, the Maley Drive Extension, has been around now for about 20 years or so. However, if you live in an urban or suburban centre, you've probably run into the issue of extending roadways as a means to alter existing traffic flow. I'm reminded of what's currently going on in Ottawa with the Terry Fox Extension.
Some quick history and geography for background: New Sudbury is a suburban enclave on the old City of Sudbury's northeast corner. It is somewhat separated from the rest of Sudbury, and there are only a few major thoroughfares along which Sudburians can travel from New Sudbury to the older parts of Sudbury: you can travel west along Lasalle Blvd., and then south along Notre Dame; or you can travel south along Barrydowne Road (or Falconbridge Highway, which is a little further out), and then west on the Kingsway. That's pretty much the grid.
To the northwest of New Sudbury is the community of Garson, which has turned into a fairly suburban community over the past several decades, although it does have an older section. If you're travelling from Garson to Sudbury, you'll use the Falconbridge Highway, and either continue south to the Kingsway or head west into New Sudbury along Lasalle. Needless to say, at certain times of the day, all of these roads are quite congested, and especially Lasalle Blvd., which is the only east-west link north of the Kingsway.
North of Sudbury is the Valley. This sprawling series of communities consists of Val Caron, Val Therese, and Hanmer. About 25,000 people live there, and mostly on very large residential lots. If you live in the Valley, there are only two main ways to access Sudbury: you travel straight down a road which turns into Notre Dame, or you head around through Garson, and end up on Falconbridge. Neither way is direct from Hanmer. Picture a big circle, with Sudbury at the bottom and Hanmer at the top. The idea of the Barrydowne Extension is that instead of travelling along the circumference of the circle, this new road will connect the two communities through the diameter. And suburban New Sudbury will find itself at ground zero for this traffic.
When New Sudbury was built, apparently Barrydowne Road was only a two lane road. It headed north from Lasalle, and served the interior curvilinear cul-de-sacs and collector roads. It terminated essentially in the middle of nowhere, although Maley Drive was ultimately built so that Barrydowne doglegged to the east at Maley Drive, and connected with Falconbridge, the main highway between Sudbury and Garson and other communities (including Falconbridge, Skead and Capreol). When Cambrian College was built on Barrydowne, the road was widened to four lanes, and slices of property belonging to residential owners were expropriated at the time for the widening. Barrydowne has since turned into a bit of an arterial road, yet with people's driveways accessing directly on to the street, it still retains its residential feel to an extent.
The City has been moving ahead with extending Maley Drive westward from where it currently terminates at Barrydowne, bringing it all the way over to Notre Dame and beyond. There is to be a cloverleaf interchange at Maley and Notre Dame. The stated intent of this extension is to free up traffic along the Kingsway and especially Lasalle, which are the only two east-west corridors in the northern part of the City. People travelling from the Valley will now be able to use Maley Drive to access the shopping centres in New Sudbury along Lasalle at Barrydowne, and further south at Barrydowne and the Kingsway. The problem is, though, to do so, they'll be travelling through the very residential section of Barrydowne north of Lasalle, or filtering through some of the side-streets. Truck traffic may opt to head all the way over to Falconbridge, which would probably be a good thing, because Lasalle Blvd is currently quite clogged with trucks. However, with other options available to motorists and truckers alike, it's no surprise that the residents of New Sudbury are concerned about adding to the already extant traffic woes on what were supposed to be residential collector streets at best.
What is a surprise is that the residents of New Sudbury have been rather silent and unorganized in their opposition to Maley Drive, which is sure to change the character of their neighbourhood. Right now, it looks like Maley Drive is a done deal, although I heard last night that the City is still looking for funding partners from senior levels of government.
Enter the Barrydowne Extension, which will act as a Highway from Hanmer. And that's not an exaggeration. We learned last night that this new road, whatever route it is to take, will be a four lane divided highway, cutting straight through the wilderness for about 10 km. This will shave considerable distance on the round trip from Hanmer to New Sudbury. But it will strand motorists in a very residential section of New Sudbury with little choice but to clog Barrydowne Road between Maley Drive (where the divided highway is to end) and Lasalle Blvd. Again, this section of Barrydowne includes churches, Cambrian College, and numerous residential homes, mainly in the form of single-detached housing.
After seeing the plans for the Barrydowne Highway last night, I was reminded a little bit of how the Allen Expressway terminates abruptly at Eglinton Avenue in Toronto, in a fairly residential neighbourhood. Of course, at the time of the Allen's planning, the Spadina Expressway was supposed to cut through the heart of that residential neighbourhood, and was only stopped when residents banded together. Today, the situation on the ground there isn't the greatest, with traffic from the 401 forced to filter through the side streets south of Eglinton, or more often, just clog up Eglinton.
The difference with the Barrydowne Highway, though, is that there will be an extremely limited number of choices for motorists: they'll be able to head east or west along Maley Drive (although that won't really take people anywhere much; since the destinations are in New Sudbury, there's little point in heading away), or they'll be able to filter first eastward along Maley to Lansing, and through that residential neighbourhood down to Lasalle. The truth is, I can't see how most motorists would do anything other than to continue to head down Barrydowne to Lasalle, given that Wal-Mart and the New Sudbury Centre mall, and the power centre are all located on Barrydowne south of Lasalle.
If the Spadina Expressway was going to be a divide in an established residential area, the Barrydowne Highway is going to completely transform the traffic situation in New Sudbury.
At last night's meeting, which was ostensibly about route planning (although I don't think that the differences between the route options were ever discussed, including by the engineering consultant presenting...not that there was that much difference between those routes), the residents of New Sudbury went off on the City for entertaining what, in their minds, is a crazy idea which will destroy their community. The City listened, and to its credit, provided good responses when it could, even though most of the questions were clearly outside of the scope of what the public meeting was supposed to be about.
4 municipal councillors were in attendance to witness the fireworks, including Councillor Ted Callaghan, whose ward will be most impacted (although Callaghan won't be returning as Ward 8 Councillor, now that he's thrown his hat in the ring to contest the Mayor's position); Councillor Landry-Altman, from nearby Ward 12 (which includes the western part of New Sudbury along the top of which Maley Drive will run) was also there, along with exurban councillors Ron Dupuis (Ward 5; the southern part of the Valley) and Councillor Andre Rivest (Ward 6, Hanmer), who has been instrumental in moving the Barrydowne Extension issue forward through this term of Council. Also present was Leo Bisson, who is running for the position of Ward 8 Councillor, to replace Ted Callaghan. A meeting was held in Hanmer the night before, which I did not attend; however, I heard that the tone of the meeting there was substantially different from the tone of the New Sudbury meeting.
In short, residents were furious. They did not understand why consultation was taking place on this matter now; it appeared as if Barrydowne was going to be another “done deal” despite years of opposition. We learned from the City that the 2005 Transportation Study, prepared as background for the City's Official Plan, identified the Barrydowne Extension as a potential way of alleviating traffic volumes along Notre Dame, coming into the City from the Valley. That study, which may have been in part based on bloated population projections, called for further studies, and Council has continued to move forward. The Route Planning Study, prepared by AECOM Engineering, was the next step. The proposed routes were overflown by helicopters and mapping was prepared, including topographical cross-sections. All in all, when asked, the staggering price of $100,000 was offered up for the completion of this one study. Yet when asked about environmental features, such as wildlife habitat or significant wetlands, through which these proposed routes were to traverse, AECOM admitted that wasn't part of their mandate, and that consultation with outside agencies (presumably the Conservation Authority and the Ministry of Natural Resources) would only occur after the preferred route was selected for protection.
More than anything else, that really stung me. It boggles my mind that those charged with assessing the best route would leave those sorts of “environmental details” to a later date, while the engineering considerations (and there are many) for both suggested routes have received almost all of the attention. The blasting of rock and filling of wetlands seem to be more important to building a highway than the impacts on the natural features along its route. Again, I think the people of Ottawa opposing the Terry Fox Extension are familiar with this. No doubt it happens all of the time, because we treat the natural environment as an after-thought.
It also appeared that the residents of New Sudbury were going to be treated as afterthoughts as well. Unlike the fish, the birds and the deer, however, New Sudbury residents can actually voice their concerns, and get themselves organized to save their neighbourhood.
It wasn't all negativity last night. Some really good alternative suggestions for the very real traffic problem in New Sudbury were proposed by some of the residents. One enlightened resident suggested that the City look at putting funds into transit so that residents of the Valley would have better choices when making their way into the City. Currently, bus service to and from the Valley leaves a lot to be desired. It was also suggested that instead of focusing growth in the Valley (which is primarily car-oriented, very low density residential..which might explain the lousy bus service), why not either focus development within areas of the City which are more transit-supportive, or help Valley communities intensify, so that transit can become a more viable and economic option. Catering to car-culture, in times of rising gasoline prices, just didn't make sense any more. And no, this comment was not made by me!
The response was, of course, that this wasn't the mandate of this Study, and that you could bring those things forward at the review of the next Official Plan, or perhaps the Environmental Assessment process, blah blah. Essentially, these sorts of issues are too big for the City to grapple with, unless there seems to be some clear political direction. In a City where senior staff believe the City should be looking to the province to regulate drive-throughs in the same way that the province regulates smoking and pesticide use, I don't have a lot of hope that anyone is going to try to address changing our culture of building cities for cars rather than for people. At least, certainly not on their own initiative.
So that leaves it up to the people. We need to be bold, and we need to step forward and tell our elected officials that this isn't what we want for our community. I know that many people are skeptical of this approach. We often hear that “City Hall” just doesn't want to listen. There's some truth to that, but it's not always that way. Many municipal councillors really don't have an agenda beyond trying to do what's right or best for their constituents. For example, Councillor Rivest, I'm sure, believes that the Barrydowne Extension is a good thing, because it will mean easier access for his constituents to shopping and recreation in Sudbury. Councillor Landy-Altman and Candidate Leo Bisson may have serious concerns because of what will happen to their New Sudbury constituents.
For me, this isn't an issue which pits the access needs of Valley residents against the desires of New Sudbury to limit traffic volumes in their neighbourhoods. It's much bigger than that. It's about how we build cities, and for whom. It's about what priorities we, as residents of a City, have for our community. It's about the need to start thinking more about people, and less about cars, because frankly, there just aren't going to be as many cars on the road in the coming decades, as gas prices and poverty increase.
I believe that the cost of building the Barrydowne Highway could be better invested in things this City needs: more transit, better alternative transportation opportunities, such as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. The goal should be to create a healthier, more eco-friendly community, rather than to continue to facilitate a car-culture, which will increasingly become the realm of the rich. Already in sprawling Sudbury, one third of our driving age residents rely on other forms of transportation to get around. Many of these people are living on fixed incomes. The Barrydowne Highway (even with bikes permitted on the shoulder) will do little for these members of our community. It will not contribute to creating a vibrant, healthy, sustainable community.
Luckily, the residents of New Sudbury have finally decided to get themselves organized. A few people volunteered to take this task on last night, so that residents could speak with a clear and united voice in opposition to this costly, neighbourhood destroying highway. When people band together, we can achieve remarkable results. There is still time to kill this highway. I expect that Sudburians from across the City will see the folly in proceeding, especially when a price-tag is attached. Right now, Maley Drive is up to an anticipated cost of $111 million, with the City intending to be on the hook for about $40 million or so (and currently without senior levels of government as funding partners, which may be troubling to the City given the orgy of roadwork which the feds have financed here already). How much might the Barrydowne Highway cost, in total? At least another hundred million, possibly several.
It's also time to begin treating the natural environment and greener transportation alternatives as more than just afterthoughts in the transportation planning process. For too long, building roads has been about engineering, and not about impacts on social matters, such as communities, or the natural environment. When you go out to the public and ask for input on preferred routes, it should no longer come as a surprise that the first question you're going to get is why on earth are you thinking about doing this in the first place, and have you explored any other alternatives? Are the population projections from the Official Plan playing themselves out now, 5 year later on? And do they continue to be supportable given the current and expected economic climate?
No, the Barrydowne Highway isn't what this City needs. All of the rest of us need to take a cue from what's going on in New Sudbury, as this issue is bigger than Wards 8 & 12; it effects all of us, because we pay taxes, and because we live here and dream of how great our community could be if we began to shift its priorities.